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The organic and biodynamic wines of southern France

Winegrowers in France are going big on biodynamic viticulture. Over the last few years, wine growers have turned to organic methods of caring for the vines – not just because of concern for the environment but because of the high quality of the wines that result. Wine expert Phillip Reddaway explains how this growing movement is set to stay…

What are biodynamic wines all about?

Biodynamic wine culture is essentially organic farming-plus. Biodynamics as a philosophy of farming was the brainchild of Austrian-born philosopher, spiritualist and intellectual Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). At the core of his beliefs was that optimal plant health is achieved through minimal chemical intervention – especially zero pesticides and fertilizers.

Instead, he preached substituting these interventions with natural homeopathic treatments and a holistic approach in recognition that plant health is a function of myriad factors, not only from the soil below but also the sky above, and the microclimate that surrounds the growing area. Biodynamics covers all farmed plant crops not just wine though – you will even find biodynamic canned peppers in health shops!

It can seem weird!

When it comes to wine growing, most people focus on the seemingly weird practices of biodynamics, like filling cow horns with dung and burying them in vineyards and aligning certain chores with phases of the moon and stars. That said, several scientific studies have shown it can be effective, even if the underlying reasons are not yet understood. Indeed, those who are new to biodynamic farming might think it’s a world populated strictly with neohippies.

Absolutely not so, some of the biggest wine names in France – Leroy in Burgundy, ZindHumbrecht in Alsace and Chapoutier in the Rhone are converts and these are very serious businesses. In the UK both Tesco and Marks and Spencer’s wine buyers have gone on record to say they prefer to organise trade tastings on biodynamic calendar days best suited to tasting wine.

The finest vineyards in the Rhone

When I’m researching the finest vineyards in the Rhone, trying wines and generally discovering everything about Rhone wines, it’s become abundantly clear that when it comes to biodynamic wines, the producers have one thing in common – a passionate obsession with tending their vines. They use plant base infusions and remedies and home-made fertiliser – that’s where that buried cow dung comes in – all practices which take a lot of time and effort. Their whole ethos is that less is more when it comes to chemicals – though this makes heaps more work.

It’s also very common for biodynamic producers to keep livestock on or around their vineyards. I have seen carthorses, sheep, goats and even a herd of Llamas at Domaine Creve Coeur! It’s part of the artisanal way of production, of sustaining the land, creating a balance between nature and the farm. And of course, keeping down the weeds on the land!

The Moon has an affect

The biodynamic calendar is based on the belief that not only moon cycles but astrological cycles have varying influences on plant life and farming. Every day in the biodynamic calendar is categorized as either a flower/leaf/root/fruit day according to the position of the moon/planets. Each category determines an ideal focus in the vineyard/winery. For example, root days are ideal for pruning. Flower days are better for working in the winery. Biodynamic adherents follow the calendar suggestions but most are pragmatic – weather considerations usually trump the calendar suggestions!

And this attention to detail, to getting closer to the growing process, inevitably shows through in wine quality. So, it doesn’t matter whether you sign on for the belief system. The wines just have a TLC advantage over regular wines.

Want to try biodynamic French wines?

You can spot bottles of biodynamic wines in France by the orange and green ‘flag’ logo of Demeter International who certify the wines. You may spot certification as Agriculture Biologique or Ecocert – but this simply means organic.

Even better – visit a biodynamic wine maker and see behind the scenes. Many vineyards open their doors to visitors and share their biodynamic philosophy and working ways. Domaine Montirius in Gigondas-Vacqueyras in Provence, for instance, hold workshops which include a tasting of their entire range of wines, cellar visit and an introduction to their approach to wine production.

And like most of the biodynamic wine producers I meet, they never use their beliefs as a marketing tool. On the contrary, they tend to be self-effacing about the practice. Instead they prefer to talk about the health of their vines and what you can taste in your glass. And that is the best way to judge the wines and make up your own mind…

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